Politics & Policy

The Democratic Party and the Language of Bankruptcy

The Democrats are resorting to an “our-critics-are-liars-and-haters” strategy.

What does a political regime do when its philosophy doesn’t work and is leading to ruin? It can’t scrap the philosophy, which is its raison d’être and the basis of its power. Were it to chuck the philosophy, its core constituencies would abandon it. So instead it blames those who have most cogently pointed out the defects of the philosophy. It calls them liars and haters. The strategy is evidently one of desperation, and a confession of the bankruptcy of the regime in question.

In the waning days of the East German state — the German Democratic Republic — East German Politburo apparatchik Hermann Axen persuaded Erich Honecker to embrace an “our-critics-are-liars-and-haters” strategy. Communism in the late summer of 1989 was a joke, but it was at the same time the raison d’être of the SED, the ruling Communist party. Without it, a lot of bureaucrats would be out of a job. Axen was one of these. “A dirty wave of hate and great lies is breaking over the GDR,” he declared on September 10, two months before ordinary Germans brought down the Berlin Wall in the name of political and economic freedom.

Flash forward to 2011. The Democratic party in the third year of the Obama presidency is in trouble. The administration’s policies are rapidly becoming a joke. One can quibble about the best label for those policies — Keynesian big-statism, tax-and-spend liberalism, socialism lite. What is not in doubt is that the policies have failed to help the economy and are leading to ruin. But the Democratic party can’t abandon the policies because its foremost constituencies, the public-sector unions, are dependent on them.

And so the Democratic leadership has settled on the Hermann Axen strategy. “Our-critics-are-liars-and-haters.”

In January, Rep. Steve Cohen (D., Tenn.) compared Republican opponents of the health-care law to Joseph Goebbels. “They say it’s a government takeover of health care, a big lie just like Goebbels,” Cohen said. “You say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, and eventually, people believe it. Like blood libel. That’s the same kind of thing. . . . The Germans said enough about the Jews and people believed it — believed it and you have the Holocaust.” (Cohen later issued a lame apology.)

As the case for the administration’s policies crumbles, the Democratic leadership is amplifying its Axen-style rhetoric. Vice President Biden has accused tea-party Republicans of “acting like terrorists” in the debt-ceiling negotiations. (He later said that he was misquoted.) On Monday, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D., Fla.), chair of the Democratic National Committee, called the tea partiers “tyrants,” and last week Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) accused the Tea Party of propagating a big lie. He urged the media not to give “equal time or equal balance” to tea partiers because their view “is not factual.”

This is good news. The “our-critics-are-liars-and-haters” trope has a limited rhetorical appeal. It is typically trotted out when a regime no longer has either a persuasive case for its policies or a language with which to make that case and win back the middle-of-the-roaders who have turned against it. The regime is forced to do what it can to reassure and reanimate its ever more apathetic base. When a regime finds itself in so unenviable a position, the odds are good that it will fall.

— Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author, most recently, of Pathology of the Elites.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran is a lawyer and writer. His book WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy is to be published in August.


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